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National Book Awards shortlist: The old and the young, the famous and the obscure.

October 13, 2011

Franny Billingsley

I continue to worry that poor Tea Obreht, who will be at this year’s Miami Book Fair, may be more cursed than blessed by the extravagant praise attending her first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, which made the National Book Award shortlist yesterday.

On the other hand, while generally dismissing arts prizes as publicity events of no aesthetic value (apples vs. oranges!), I confess a glow of vicarious pride when a book I really liked is nominated for a major award. I’m speaking of Franny Billingsley’s Young Adult novel Chime — one of the best novels I’ve read in any category this year — which is shortlisted in the Young People’s Literature category.

Visit the Miami Book Fair International website to see the gaudy author list (Roseanne Cash! Jeffrey Eugenides! Nicole Kraus! Michael Ondaajte! Hundreds more! Literally!). This year’s fair runs Nov. 13-20. More details to come. Watch this space!

Other noteworthy nominations announced in Oregon yesterday: Manning Marable, who died just days before his controversial biography of Malcolm X was published, leads the Nonfiction short list, while the venerable poet Adrienne Rich, 82, made the Poetry list for Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010.

If Rich is the oldest nominee, then Obreht, at 26, is probably among the youngest ever. While The Tiger’s Wife, a folkloric treatment of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, is a brilliant debut heralding the arrival of a major talent blah-blah, it’s not quite the masterpiece partisans like Charles Simic, in this review from The New York Review of Books,  proclaim it to be.

I fear such a shower of kudos will so overwhelm this promising young author that she becomes self-conscious — the bane of any writer. Sitting at the word processor with that kind of praise ringing in your ears might cause even a genius to freeze up. “I can’t write just anything — I’m the author of The Tiger’s Wife!”

Let’s hope not, for while The Tiger’s Wife doesn’t quite hold together, in my view, it is an astonishingly accomplished first novel, and furthermore it’s a kind of fiction — high-serious fabulism — that I particularly enjoy. So good luck, Tea. You shouldn’t be on this shortlist, but I look forward to your next book.

The Fiction shortlist otherwise is populated by relatively unknown writers published by small or independent houses — a very good thing, as small regional presses will likely be publishing more and more of the daring and interesting books in the years to come.

However, the emphasis on lesser-known books and authors unfortunately excludes important new novels by established writers, among them Jeffrey Eugenides’ long-awaited The Marriage Plot, his first since the Pulitzer-winning and much-loved Middlesex (2002), or Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin, the most memorable new novel I personally have read this year.

A bit of confusion during the announcement yesterday resulted in an unprecedented development: Six books are nominated in the Young People’s Literature category, instead of the customary five. This occurred when Lauren Myracle’s Shine was mistakenly announced instead of Billingsley’s Chime.

“We made a mistake, there was a miscommunication,” said Harold Augebraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, to the LA Times. “We could have taken one of the books away to keep it five, but we decided that it was better to add a sixth one as an exception, because they’re all good books.”

Winners receive $10,000 (a paltry sum, if you ask me, for the nation’s top literary award; the Man-Booker, Britain’s equivalent prize, carries a £60,000 purse, or $96,000 in real money ). The awards will be handed out Nov. 16 at a ceremony hosted by the actor John Lithgow. Poet John Ashbury and Miami bookseller Mitchell Kaplan, co-founder of the Miami Book Fair, will receive honorary awards.

Here is the complete list of nominees in each category:

The Soujourn by Andrew Krivak
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Binocular Vision by Edith Perlman
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Non Fiction
The Convert by Deborah Baker
Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution by Mary Gabriel.
The Swerve: How The World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
Malcolm X by Manning Marable

Radioactive”by Lauren Redniss

Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney
The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa
Double Shadow by Carl Phillips
Tonight No Poetry Will Serve by Adrienne Rich
Devotions by Bruce Smith

Young People’s Literature
My Name is Not Easy by Debbie Dahl Edwardson
Inside out and back again by Thanhha Lai
Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin
Shine by Lauren Myracle
OK For Now by Gary D Schmidt
Chime”by Franny Billingsley


2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 14, 2011 2:54 pm

    Sure, $10,000 bucks doesn’t seem like much, but consider the higher road here– it’s clearly the bigger reward of invaluable humility and limited notoriety that is the real payoff for aspiring and established authors alike.

    Besides, Google’s 2011 “Android Developer Challenge 2” awards the overall winner a TRUE paltry sum of $250,000 if you take into account the costs associated with over-inflated ego and eventual downfall of character that is as sure to follow as Nintendonitis for preteens just discovering “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City”.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 17, 2011 10:39 am

    Humility, invaluable or other otherwise, is not a characteristic I have detected in any of the thousands of professional writers I’ve met over the past twenty-mumble-mumble years. Nope, scouring my memory, not a single one.

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